“We would rather be back in Guantánamo,” say Tunisians Abdullah bin Omar and Lofti Lagha, returned in June


In the Washington Post, Jennifer Daskal of Human Rights Watch provides gruelling updates on the stories of Abdullah bin Omar and Lofti Lagha, the Tunisian Guantánamo detainees who were returned to the country of their birth in June. Having recently travelled to Tunisia, Daskal reports that, although she was unable to gain access to bin Omar (referred to as Abdullah al-Hajji) and Lagha (and was tailed by plain clothes police throughout her visit), she met local activists, lawyers, government officials and family members who had met them, and who explained to her that they had been “telling visitors that things are so bad they would rather be back at Guantánamo Bay.”

According to Daskal, Hajji, whose story I reported here and here, “told his local lawyer that the Tunisian government’s first act of welcome was to replace their blindfolds, which are used in transporting detainees, with hoods.” She adds that what happened shortly after his return “tracks closely with widely known practices of the Tunisian police,” and explains that he “endured two long days of interrogations at the Ministry of Interior, where he was “slapped,” “shaken awake every time he started to sleep,” and, as previously reported, threatened with the rape of his wife and daughters. At the end of this ordeal, Daskal reports that “the threats to Hajji’s family were more than he could take: he told his lawyer that he signed the paper that officials thrust at him, even though his eyes had deteriorated so badly and his glasses were so old that he had no idea what it said.”

Tunisian prison map

A map of Tunisian prisons from the website Tunisian Prison Map (which, unsurprisingly, is banned in Tunisia).

He was then taken before a Tunisian military court, which had “tried him in absentia and sentenced him to 10 years in 1995 on suspicion of belonging to a terrorist organization operating abroad,” even though the case against him “relied primarily” on a statement made by one of his 19 co-defendants, in which he claimed that Hajji had been associated with the Tunisian Islamic Front in Pakistan. Daskal notes that Hajji’s lawyer explained that the statement “was probably given after torture and abuse,” and also reports that Hajji himself said that “neither the Tunisians nor the Americans ever told him about this conviction before sending him home,” adding that, “had he known about it, he never would have wanted to return.” This confirms what one of his lawyers, Clive Stafford Smith, explained in a New Statesman article shortly after his release:

As I flew in to Guantánamo Bay on a small commercial plane recently, I squinted out of the window. A grey aircraft crouched at the end of the runway. Given the Bush administration’s maverick rendition policy, I wondered whether the plane had been used for one of those forcible, extralegal transfers of prisoners to a torture chamber.

I had intended to visit a prisoner from Tunisia called Abdullah bin Omar. The administration once pretended that bin Omar was among the worst of the worst terrorists on earth. More recently, a military tribunal cleared him for release, finding that he was no threat to anyone. To be sure, such Guantánamo tribunals are themselves a travesty, relying on coerced and secret evidence, but at least bin Omar was allowed to be present to argue his innocence.

I had planned to advise bin Omar on his right to asylum. Tunisia has a far longer pedigree than Guantánamo’s when it comes to denial of due process. Two colleagues recently travelled to Tunisia on his behalf and found that he had been sentenced in absentia to 23 years in prison. It was clear that he would be better off serving his sentence in absentia. He was almost certain to face torture on his return. All of this we had communicated to the US government –- only bin Omar did not know the full extent of his peril in Tunisia.

I never got to see my client. The day after I arrived, as evening drew in, that grey plane took off. Having stalled me for a week, the US government then sent us an email saying that bin Omar had been a passenger on it.

After his appearance before the military court, Daskal reports that, for the next six weeks, Hajji was “held in solitary confinement in a windowless, unventilated cell that he called his ‘tomb,’” and was allowed no contact with any other prisoners. She adds, “He was allowed just 15 minutes of recreation per day, in another windowless room, [and] told visitors that he never knew what time it was –- not even when to pray.” Speaking of his treatment, his lawyer declared bluntly, “It’s illegal!” pointing out that the Tunisian government “had disavowed such solitary confinement in 2005 as cruel and outmoded,” brandishing “a tattered copy of the Tunisian Criminal Code and pointing excitedly to the provision that permits solitary confinement only for punitive purposes and not for more than 10 days.”

Lagha, whose release was first mentioned in an article I wrote here, has spoken briefly about his ill-treatment in US custody, but has so far mentioned little about his treatment since his return to the country of his birth. Daskal reports, however, that his lawyer explained that he “has been facing charges of participating in a terrorist organization abroad,” and that he was only moved out of solitary confinement two days before he first met him on August 9. Two of Lagha’s brothers, who “made the long trip from the family home in southern Tunisia to the capital to see him” while Daskal was there, explained that they thought that their brother was dead, and didn’t even know that he was being held at Guantánamo until they learned of his release on al-Arabiya TV.

As shocking as it is to realize that Lagha, who did not have legal representation in Guantánamo, spent five a half years in US custody without his family even knowing that he was alive, what is even more disturbing about this latest report on the fate of the two returned Tunisians is that it highlights, in stark and unarguable terms, that the “diplomatic assurances” made to the US government by the government of Tunisian dictator Zine El Abidine Ben Ali –- which purport to “negotiate away the risk of torture by getting promises of humane treatment from the receiving country” –- are actually worthless.

Daskal reports that she asked Robert F. Godec, the US ambassador to Tunisia, to explain “what the Bush administration is doing to track the two men’s cases,” and that Godec replied that “he had ‘specific and credible’ assurances from the Tunisian government that they would not be abused,” adding that “we follow up on these assurances.” But Daskal was concerned that he “would not say whether the treatment of Hajji and Lagha had lived up to Tunisia’s pledges; nor would he say whether any US official had met with the two since their return home.” “This,” she concludes, “is disturbing: all we have are promises from a notoriously abusive regime, yet US officials will not even say whether they are following up on those assurances by talking to the detainees themselves.”

Sadly, this is also typical. Daskal, pointing out that “the United States is expressly prohibited under international law –- in the form of the 1984 Convention Against Torture –- from forcibly sending anyone back to a country where there are substantial grounds for believing they would be tortured,” notes that “Haphazardly shipping detainees such as Hajji and Lagha to countries with widely known records of torture is hardly the way to go about closing Guantánamo Bay.” In two other cases, however, the US administration is seeking to return other cleared detainees –- the Libyan Abdul Rauf al-Qassim and the Algerian-born British resident Ahmed Belbacha –- from Guantánamo to the country of their birth, even though both men fear that they will be tortured on their return, and has been joined by the British government in this plot to undermine international safeguards preventing torture.

As I reported here, the British government –- which has refused to accept the return of Belbacha, even though he was granted leave to remain in the UK –- has entered into agreements regarding the “humane treatment” of returned prisoners with the governments of Jordan, Libya and Algeria that are as worthless as the Americans’ “diplomatic assurances” from Tunisia. The motives vary: the Americans, for example, want to sweep out some inconvenient individuals from Guantánamo who should never have been detained in the first place, and the British want rid of prisoners held without charge or trial because, unlike most other countries in the West, they are stubbornly refusing to accept that intercept evidence can be used in trials without compromising intelligence sources (although the suspicion remains that, in many cases, they are unwilling to proceed with trials because their “intelligence” is shockingly poor).

The end result, however, is the same: innocent men held for years without trial –- or men whose guilt has never been demonstrated in a court of law, and who in many cases have never even been told what they are supposed to have done –- are being returned to countries where they face the very real risk of torture.

Note: Mr. Lagha’s first name is spelled incorrectly. It is “Lotfi” not “Lofti.”

Additional note: On 7 September, Human Rights Watch issued a detailed report on the Tunisian detainees, Ill-Fated Homecomings: A Tunisian Case Study of Guantánamo Repatriations, which I recommend whole-heartedly.

For more on the Tunisians in Guantánamo, see my book The Guantánamo Files: The Stories of the 774 Detainees in America’s Illegal Prison (published by Pluto Press, distributed by Macmillan in the US, and available from Amazon — click on the following for the US and the UK). To receive new articles in your inbox, please subscribe to my RSS feed.

As published on American Torture.

One Response

  1. Britain’s Guantánamo: Fact or Fiction? by Andy Worthington « Dandelion Salad says...

    […] two prisoners who were returned — Lotfi Lagha and Abdullah bin Omar — reported that they were threatened and mistreated in Tunisian custody. They were then subjected to show trials, apparently based on evidence obtained […]

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Andy Worthington

Investigative journalist, author, campaigner, commentator and public speaker. Recognized as an authority on Guantánamo and the “war on terror.” Co-founder, Close Guantánamo and We Stand With Shaker. Also, photo-journalist (The State of London), and singer and songwriter (The Four Fathers).
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